Update on Wikipedia’s “Paid Advocacy” Debate for Marketers

Update on Wikipedia’s “Paid Advocacy” Debate for Marketers

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the debate within Wikipedia’s editorial community on how and to what extent communications professionals should contribute.

The last time the discussion was this active, was when a Facebook group, called the Corporate Representatives for Ethical Wikipedia Engagement, was lobbying Jimmy Wales to lift the informal prohibition against directly editing a client or employer’s entry.

I thought it was about time we revisit the topic with a general update on where things are, especially now that there are two ongoing discussions within the Wikipedia community on a “paid advocacy” policy.

Paid advocacy?
“Paid Advocacy” is a term coined by Jimmy Wales that has gained traction among the Wikipedia community, the Wikimedia Foundation and marketing professionals. It refers to Wikipedia editors, who are generally paid to advocate on behalf of their employer or client. One example is a public relations representative, who helps the company they work for communicate the company’s point-of-view.

Why it’s hot again
The Wikimedia Foundation published a press release last month criticizing Wiki-PR, who was recently exposed for using deceitful tactics to manipulate Wikipedia on behalf of paying clients.

It also alluded to the potential for legal action, on account of violating the website’s Terms of Use, which prohibit misrepresenting your identity. Ethical Wiki has covered how misrepresenting your affiliation with a company on Wikipedia as a marketing or public relations professional may also violate the Federal Trade Commission’s disclosure laws.

In the wake of the Wiki-PR controversy, Wikipedians have revisited the discussion (yet again) on making a “paid editing” policy for how editors with a financial connection, like marketing professionals, should contribute. The two different discusssions are advertised at the top as community-wide discussions when I click on my Watchlist, which is where every editor keeps an eye on articles they care about.

Highly divided
As Sue Gardner said in the press release, it has been a “divisive topic inside Wikipedia for many years”. This continues to be the case, with reasonable arguments on both sides.

While some marketers may boast that they write neutrally and produce claims that are factual and supported by authoritative research, it is not in our job description to be neutral in the same way as independent academics or journalists. Our typical role is to communicate the company’s point-of-view in a credible fashion.

On the other hand, many company articles treat the corporation unfairly, are owned by legal antagonists or are unlikely to attract volunteer contributors.

We’ve published research in the past that showed that the company itself is the only one likely to devote the resources to thoughtfully contribute to their own articles. A long history of misbehavior has led to a general distrust of marketing professionals, who are constantly challenged by temptation on the site.

Some perspective
The reason Wikipedia’s editorial community struggles to create an explicit policy for marketing participation is because the appropriate conduct for a marketing professional is unique to the circumstance. Jimmy Wales’ Bright Line rule of not directly editing your own employer or client’s article is a good one for the general audience and the right thing for Wikipedia to communicate. However, as we saw with British Petroleum following it does not make an organization immune to criticism and controversy.

Many marketers that respect the Bright Line position Wikipedia’s Talk pages as a place for marketers to engage in advocacy, as we would normally do with the press. To “make our case” or “argue for your edits,” however advocacy is broadly prohibited on Wikipedia. Even from the Talk page, it is reprehensible for marketers to micro-manage the exact text of controversial material. Could you imagine going to The New York Times and arguing that they tweak the exact wording of how they covered an oil spill in order to be more neutral?

The easiest morale compass is this. Wikipedia expects us to do our best to be neutral – to mimic the contributions we would make if were not employed by the company, but were donating our time on a volunteer basis. The better the company can duplicate the efforts a volunteer editor would make, the less risk, criticism and controversy they will be exposed to. Any deviation from this may be interpreted as intentional and any intentional effort to slant Wikipedia is seen as dubious, regardless of whether the company discloses and follows the Bright Line or not.